In terms of agriculture, Qatar is relatively new to growing vegetables. Its primary crop has been date palms and dates, which have been cultivated for over 1,000 years. But fresh vegetables have only been farmed commercially in Qatar since the 1960s.
What that means is that Qatar has only around 60 years of accumulated knowledge of what vegetables can be grown successfully in the country. Much of this knowledge is anecdotal and a lot of it is spill over information from India and Pakistan where many of the vegetable varieties cultivated here originate from and where the farm hands tending these local crops also typically originate. Local farms inevitably rely on these connections to renew their seeds, whether by reimporting annuals, or seed harvesting from their own crops. The agricultural impetus in Qatar is to grow what other people grow because “that’s what we grow” and this is largely dictated and determined by the knowledge and abilities of the farm hands doing the growing.
Torba Farm has been operating as a private family farm since the 70s. More recently, it has begun commercial operations, though its efforts are centred around permaculture farming techniques that yield organic and spray-free vegetables, traditional Arabic medicinal herbs and other plant varieties, in addition to the dates the farm has always grown. Its commercial operation is small and targets niche vegetable varieties, and older seed types with a view to protecting Qatar’s traditional vegetable flora and introducing strong heritage strains to the crop population.
The farm also looks to do it in a sustainable way – using techniques that reduce the amount of water required to grow, adapting desert-growing techniques such as below ground greenhouses, and saving seeds for future planting. Part of this sustainable thinking includes the establishment of a heritage seed bank. The idea being that crops that have been grown successfully in Qatar, can over a period of time, become relied upon to successfully grow again and be naturally more resilient to the challenges of growning in Qatar. Seed collection of successfully grown crops ensures that the best vegetables can be planted again the following growing season. And so on until a heritage is established.
Genetically speaking, heritage seeds are superior. This is because they have maintained their DNA structure over a long period of time. As a result, they produce more nutrient dense fruit and vegetables and contain better flavour and texture than modern hybrids, or GMO versions. Heritage seeds also tend to be more disease resistant, germinate more reliably, and come with a historical background and knowledge about what works best for them in terms of growing conditions and cultivation.
In time, Torba plans create a knowledge bank of information about plants and vegetables that are known as good growers in Qatar. This will go hand-in-hand with the seed collection that will continue to build, spread to home gardens and other local farms, and perhaps even be exported to other parts of the Gulf with similar growing environments.
By expanding the variety of vegetables and plants grown in Qatar and ensuring their reuse through seed saving, Qatar can ensure its heritage remains for generations.